Santa swaps reindeer for horses

Diane Wienbar, from San Martin, watches as Beatrice Wiltsie visits with Bojangles, a gypsy horse from Painted Gypsy Ranch, Wednesday in front of Wheeler Manor.

On a cool Wednesday morning at Wheeler Manor – a senior living facility in Gilroy – residents gathered to watch Santa and his elves make a grand entrance as they were pulled in a sleigh by a majestic Gypsy horse.

The crowd was all aglow and delighted when they heard the sleigh bells jingling. Santa greeted the crowd and mingled in the lobby, where he greeted residents and took pictures with them.

Now in its fourth year, the event hosted by Wheeler Manor is becoming a popular tradition for the folks who reside at the beautiful historic building located at 651 West Sixth St. – formerly Gilroy’s first hospital.

An integral part of this festive occasion depends on local couple Kay and Larry Weeks, a pair of equine enthusiasts who volunteer their time and horses to help pull Santa’s sleigh each year. The Weeks run and own Painted Gypsy Ranch off Masten Avenue, where they raise and show Gypsy horses: A breed of draft horse marked by distinct coloring, long, silky manes and feathery feet.

For Kay, helping facilitate the event is also a way of giving back to a place that helped her in a time of need. When she was looking for work, Wheeler Manor gave her a job. Her husband Larry still works at Wheeler doing maintenance.

“I love these people, I worked here at one point and I just want to give to people who have not enjoyed horses or been around horses,” said Kay.

Santa is played by Harry Council, a Gilroy truck driver who has assumed the role of Kris Kringle at various events throughout the South Bay for the better part of 20 years. Council said he loves being able to give back to the community and seeing people smile.

Playing Santa must have been in the cards for Council, who doesn’t even have to wear fake snowy whiskers. Council has been growing his beard for a long time and once it turned white, he figured it was high time to put it to use. He eventually teamed up with the Weeks, who are his neighbors, to participate in the Wheeler event.

Not all of the residents were able to make it out of their rooms Wednesday to see the spectacle, so Council came to their doorsteps – even delivering poinsettias donated from Home Depot in Gilroy.

“Being able to make (people) happy is why I do it,” said Council, of his Clause calling. “There are a few people who are shut-ins and can’t make it out, so we will go knock on their door and see the surprise on their face, and it’s just marvelous.”

Earlier that day, when Santa and his elves (played by the Weeks’ daughter and granddaughters) made their grand entrance around 11:20 a.m., residents’ faces lit up like children on Christmas morning.

Excited wheeler resident Frances Cavanaugh, 83 – who has lived in Gilroy for 65 years – even ran inside to get some carrots for the horses, claiming they needed some treats.

“I love the horses and Santa Claus and it’s a lot of excitement and I really enjoy it and I look forward to it,” she gushed.

Another resident, Kathy Bonnick, 86, who has lived at Wheeler for six years, was also giddy to see the horses. Bonnick recalled her younger days back in England, where she rode horses on the sets of films.

“I just like seeing Kay because she used to work here at the office and is very friendly,” said Bonnick. “I love horses too and I look forward to seeing Santa.”

After their visit with Santa Claus, residents gathered in the dining room for some homemade chicken soup made from 16 chickens donated by local Roy Ramos, who resides just across the street from Wheeler.

Ramos, who has lived in Gilroy for 48 years and in the past put on entire dinners for Wheeler residents with the help of his mother, Elisa, said he is carrying on the torch of his late father, who also enjoyed blessing the senior community.

Ramos joked that his family at one point was kind of “at war” over parking space with Wheeler Manor, “so I thought about it and thought, ‘what would Dad do?’ Dad would go over there and make friends with everybody,” he said.

Mary Lou Mazzone, Wheeler’s property manager for 20 years, made sure to mention the efforts of everyone who helped make Wednesday’s event so special. It wouldn’t have been possible without assistance from people such as Ramos, Council, the Weeks or Anthony Privitera – one of the resident’s caregivers who cooked the soup, she praised.

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